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'What does it mean to be a black male?' (Video)

Friday - 1/31/2014, 11:13am  ET

questionbridge_512.jpg
The creative team behind 'Question Bridge' sifted through more than 1,600 questions and answers. (Vimeo)

'We've been conditioned to put people into groups'

Hank Willis Thomas, "Question Bridge: Black Males"

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WASHINGTON -- "What does it mean to you to be a black male?"

That kind of question can illicit a number of responses depending on the person answering: pride, confusion, apathy or even empathy.

Exploring those emotions is the goal behind "Question Bridge: Black Males," currently on exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Northwest D.C.

The multimedia project uses video to mediate a greater discussion among black men from all walks of life: young and old, educated and not, affluent and blue collar.

First conceived of in 1996 by artist Chris Johnson, the installation aims to demystify differences among people who are perceived as being part of the same demographic.

"He was wanting to try to find a way to get people who are seen as part of the same group but also see themselves as different from one another to communicate," says new media artist and "Question Bridge" collaborator Hank Willis Thomas.

"Part of the idea of this project is to show that there is as much diversity within any demographic as there is outside of it."

Creating the series took the team years to complete. They toured the country and brought in more than 150 black men to ask whatever question came to mind. Some of the questions were about love and relationships, others about civil rights and some about everyday life. The artists then presented those same questions to people who might be able to answer them.

In one poignant exchange, a young man asks why the civil rights generation didn't leave a blueprint for peace.

Unbeknownst to him, Martin Luther King. Jr's friend and fellow activist, Andrew Young, answers the question. Watch the video below:


Thomas says he signed onto "Question Bridge" after seeing footage from the pilot project, which originated in San Francisco and included just 10 people on camera.

"I saw this project and was shocked by the authenticity and the candor of a lot of the people communicating," he says.

Thomas approached Johnson, his former professor at the California College of the Arts, about updating and expanding the series. Together they formed a creative team of five artists and filmmakers who acted as facilitators of a conversation, not interviewers, Thomas says.

"We've been conditioned to actually put people in groups, to see ourselves in groups, but not necessarily really understand where the groups came from, who made them and what they really mean -- how they liberate us, how they might constrain us," Thomas says.

"African-American males are kind of frequently lumped into groups with things many of them don't necessarily fall into or want to [fall into]."

The group behind "Question Bridge" is working on developing a website and mobile app version of the project. The teams hopes thousands of people will eventually contribute to the discussion of what it means to be black and male in the United States.

"Question Bridge" is on display through Feb. 16. Watch a preview of the project below:

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